Tuesday, 9 October 2012

giving thanks: thirty years on

Work joins us.
Shared work and a sense of community joins us.
Things we repeat seasonally provide us with opportunities to reflect back on earlier seasons of our lives, and as i have done every year since 1982, as i cleaned my home and prepared for a feastday gathering, i thought back to my hitch-hiking days through the autumn, and landing up at the home of Josephine. The beautiful visit that we had, she and her young son, and how much she and i wanted to remain in touch. Their generosity, with food, shelter, and most especially, with around the table company, with stories: we told one another about who we were and what our lives were like, and what we hoped for, our aspirations. Her small son Darcy was, like me, an aspiring writer.

In the morning, I woke to find Josephine dressing a moose, and we spoke about hunting, and her trapline, and the seasonal preparations of food. She packed a lunch for us, and sent us on our way. My trip did not end well, one more Traumatic Event before full adulthood.

For years after that, every thanksgiving, I tried to get in touch with her, and I cried in frustration: quite literally, i cried and cried. I sent her thanksgiving cards, that returned to me undelivered.

It seemed unfair that two women who wanted to know one another and would benefit from knowing one another should be so thwarted. I continue to think how I might close the gap, between her family and mine, and sit again with Josephine and with Darcy.


My recent "autumn" post seems a bit grumpy, counter-the-spirit of the holiday. I had a few things i needed to say, a sense that i was withholding making public statements about issues that are important to me, out of a sense of vulnerability, and a fear of being punished. I needed to regain a sense of balance, of fearlessness and truth, of operating from my own center.

There was a precipitating incident, not mentioned: more immediate and local to me. I have had to make use of my local foodbank in recent weeks, and while i am grateful for that-- it isn't the same as pulling a living wage but it is something-- i was not happy to be bullied out of place in the line-up, to find myself standing at the end of the line, gazing over the shoulders of at least a dozen people to the place where i had originally been.

This is what happened: I arrived with my friend, a beautiful woman of height and youth and athletic build, and we added ourselves to the queue, speaking of the autumn weather-- bright skies and new colours-- and community goings on, and our kids' creativity. She came along to assist me with a ride needed: i have no car, can't physically wrangle the food on and off buses, nor (after my first effort) pull the food home in my cart without putting my back out.

The line-up was long, looped into a long parallel. We arrived, others followed. At a certain point, a departing car needed to pass by, so we were asked to move close to one another, effectively making a single mingled line. After the car passed, we sorted ourselves out again. My tall friend decided to move out of the shadow, to warm up in the light of the sun. Unfortunately, one whole family of elders took advantage of the confusion to move past the people of colour ahead of them, and to join their countrymen further up in the line. They pushed past me dismissively, and checked this out with the fellow tasked to keep order in the line-up: he dealt with it with humour-- effectively, not at all.

Seeing the success of this venture, another of the countrymen, younger and taller and massively built, addressed himself to me, claiming prior right as he was behind them-- which no doubt he was-- and aggressively moving past, bringing all who had arrived after me along in his wake.

Having been effectively bullied out of the line-up completely, it was clear to me that even food for my family was not worth the price of being treated in a dehumanizing fashion. I recalled other experiences, where occasionally my fellow impoverished have shown such disconnection with the humanity of their fellows, and created a sort of feeding frenzy, a jockeying for advantage that-- apparently-- helps them to feel like they are successful human beings.

As a mom-- as a community organizer-- I know that this isn't a lesson that I want to let stand. I don't want to say "yes" to misconduct, to honour the feelings of entitlement of some over the reality of justice for all, in particular, I don't want to agree to setting the tone of aggression = advantage in the foodbank line-up. It did get me thinking about the status of brown, elder people in the lands these queue-jumpers arrived from, the Roma especially, and all of the Not White and Not Quite.

When I was in my  mid-twenties, I met a woman at a dinner party who had immigrated from western Europe. She told me flat out that, as an immigrant, it was clear to her that she would integrate into Canadian society much more readily than I ever would, and at a higher level (in terms of class), despite my deep roots and my indigeneity-- perhaps because of them. She said she felt guilty about it, but felt it important to face the facts.  Her words made me angry, at the time: no young person wants to have their ability to flourish boxed-in by the apparent inevitabilities perceived by those older and wiser.  Thirty years on, however, I am about ready to cry "uncle." Where you begin dictates where you will end, to a large degree, and this is an ongoing uphill challenge to make my way/flourishing.

Back to the wednesday non-incident: I considered the option of just leaving, keeping dignity and foregoing food, but children have an expectation to be fed, so that wasn't the way to go.  I called my tall friend over, and I asked her whereabouts we had been in the lineup, before the chain of opportunism that had resulted in my relocation. She quickly relocated our place in the queue, and we inserted me in the correct part of the line up.  There were no self-justifed cries of unfairness, not a murmur from those who had used aggressivity, and the assumption of alliance between white (or white-looking) people to their temporary advantage. My friend decided not to go back and wait in the sun again, quietly furious at witnessing what "socially vulnerable" means for me: if I am the most powerful in my household, and this is what happens when I leave the house, well, god help us.


My once-a-year volunteer job of co-hosting WPRichmond brought me a lot of satisfaction on Saturday, when organizing efforts of my son Theo, my friends Alan G and Ariadne S, and myself, all came together, to make a very thought-provoking afternoon of poetry. The Fabric Room appeals to me: a number of quilts celebrating the community hang high on one wall, a number of looms-- with works-in-progress-- inhabit the periphery of the room. To me, these are very feminine things, although technically weavers and quilters come in all genders and all ages. Within the room, we heard from elders and youth, and altho Chaucer didn't join us, Wendell Berry did, brought forth by Alan Girling. Hari did a wonderful workshop on collaborations, and all shared work that was expressive of ourselves and our moments, cumulatively weaving a sense of presence and gentle engagement that was the best that we can be-- a high contrast to my Wednesday challenges, the feeling of being disappointed in people.

This is why community organizing with a positive focus-- like creativity and accomplishment-- is so very important. It is demoralizing to attend gatherings funded on the basis of weakness, whether it be called "suicide prevention," or any of the other "you are fucked up" funding foci. Over the years I have sat on so many advisory and consultation groups, for government as well as community groups, only to have the follow-up plan of work be fashioned on the basis of a belief that impoverished or unhappy or parenting people cannot possibly have something of value to share: come listen to the hired heads, and we will give you what you want (food tix for pregnant women, a bit of community, bus tix, etc).

When a family is "socially vulnerable," it takes generations to strengthen the family, it is not something that can have a wand waved over it. Yet when we come together to share food, as my family did yesterday, as Josephine and her son and my then-boyfriend and I all did on Thanksgiving in 1982, or to share work, as people often do, as a cluster of poets did on Saturday, in the Fabric Room, there is a real strengthening going on, cross-fertilizations and inspirations, and cross-mentoring.

We are not asked to check our dignity at the door. We are allowed to focus on joy and strength, not many-generations-oppression-and-indignity.


Yesterday was all housecleaning, Theo and I outdoing ourselves in preparing the house for a gathering, and feasting: my eldest son couldn't make it (work-related injury), my second son brought his new roommate, my kids' dads brought excellent food, root vegetables and honey in the comb and pumpkin pies. I stuffed and cooked the turkey Harper had bought and dropped off, and shared the best of the foodbank offerings, a little cake of chocolate.

As i did the cleaning, preparatory to the gathering,  i thought about the other mums that i know, who may or may not be doing a cleaning frenzy: all the Wausnodeh and Old Lady Hunting mothers and grandmothers, a young writer who has just relocated to the east coast, other writer men and writer women, here in BC and further afield. I thought about Josephine, and about Darcy: i think i did meet him again, but i was uncentered, and so, chattered on and on about trivial things. In the weeks following that Edmonton encounter, i became deeply shamed, for the lost opportunity.

Today, I am illustrating how things can get challenging, but also I am giving thanks, more simply.  On this blog in past I have shared some of the sorrow that has afflicted me, and today I would like to end affirming some of the strength and the joy and the resilience. I take pride in my work as mother, and mentor, and in my work as poet, author, editor. 

It is my good fortune that I met Josephine and her son, Darcy, after leaving university (after many good things and many traumatic experiences), and many others who for a few hours or for a few years, might mentor and encourage me, or feel inspired and feel encouraged when they listen to my hopes and my dreams. Sending my thanks, and my greetings.

All my relations

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